Tag: tarsands

US, unlike Canada, considers climate impacts of fossil fuel transport

SeaLevelThe Sightline Institute alerted me to the scope of assessment for the proposed coal export terminal at Cherry Point in Washington State.

The Washington Department of Ecology, is going to require in-depth analysis of four elements that the coal industry had desperately hoped to avoid: A detailed assessment of rail transportation on other representative communities in Washington and a general analysis of out-of-state rail impacts. An assessment of how the project would affect human health in Washington. A general assessment of cargo-ship impacts beyond Washington waters. An evaluation and disclosure of greenhouse gas emissions of end-use coal combustion.

via Scope of Gateway Pacific Analysis is Bad News for Coal Industry | Sightline Daily.

Contrast with Canada’s Kinder Morgan pipeline review. This pipeline aims to triple the flow of tarsands oil through an already existing old pipeline. Tankers carrying 900,000 barrels of bitumen will ply the Salish Sea every day.

But the scope of the review won’t encompass the potential impacts of the oilsands crude that would be in the pipe, or the end-use for the oil.

At a time when greenhouse gases already emitted are set to cause sea level rise that will affect millions, even in affluent countries like the US, considering climate impacts of all fossil fuel projects seems to be a no-brainer. Obama repeatedly mentions climate impacts as an important factor in the US review of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

The other part of this review that is more comprehensive than Canadian reviews is the explicit leadership of the state environmental agency, the Washington State Department of Ecology. Here in British Carbontaxia, the government gave up its review rights on the Enbridge pipeline.

Industry boosters claim that individual pipelines have nothing to do with the climate, and that the oil will flow one way or the other, sometimes to tragic effect. This Pembina post is a quick start on what the tarsands mean for climate. Note that building these pipelines is key to increasing capacity, hence emissions. Without pipelines, the tarsands will not grow as fast. So, any review that does not take climate impacts of fossil fuel transport into use is not a serious review. A barrel of tarsands oil (at 20% greater than average emission) is around 0.5 metric tonnes of carbon. The Kinder Morgan pipeline would carry approximately 170 million tonnes (Mt) worth of carbon equivalent per year. The greenhouse gas emissions in BC in 2010 was 63 Mt. Surely, we need to consider climate impacts! Just the incremental impact of tarsands oil (more intensive than average) is itself worth about a billion tonnes of carbon over a 50 year lifespan.

Canada claims to align with the US on greenhouse gas mitigation actions. Clearly, this is one of those “not intended to be factually accurate” statements.

Picture courtesy go greener oz used under a creative commons licence.

Are there Vogons on Canada’s National Energy Board?

I did not know whether to laugh or cry when I read this morning of the new rules put in place to “help” Canada’s residents voice their concerns on the numerous pipeline projects that are to be built to ship diluted bitumen out of Alberta. The rules arise from the Omnibus “Budget” bill passed in 2012 that “streamlined” environmental assessments.

Ordinary Canadians who want to participate at the NEB hearings, or even write a letter to offer their thoughts, must first print the application form that was made available online on Friday, answer 10 pages of questions, then file it with both the NEB and Enbridge. And they must do so by April 19.The NEB also encourages those wishing to make submissions to include résumés and references. Only after an application is approved will the board accept a letter

via Energy board changes pipeline complaint rules – The Globe and Mail.

Sounds familiar?

Mr Prosser said: “You were quite entitled to make any suggestions or protests at the appropriate time you know.”


“But Mr Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months.”


“But the plans were on display…”

“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”

“That’s the display department.”

“With a torch.”

“Ah, well the lights had probably gone.”

“So had the stairs.”

“But look, you found the notice didn’t you?”

“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying Beware of the Leopard.”

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

Just a note that the Vogons gave us nine months notice to demolish earth and did not ask for a 10 page application, résumés, references and first born (one of these is not a requirement).


Picture of Vogon from Tim Ellis’ Flickr stream used under a Creative Commons Licence

Weaver and the Tarsands: What the media missed.

It appears that Canada (or the part I follow) is all a twitter about an interesting analysis ($$$) by prominent climate scientist Andrew Weaver and his colleague Neil Swart that counts up all fossil fuel reserves, then converts them into global temperature increases based solely on their combustion CO2 emissions potential. It turns out that oilsand reserves are dwarfed by the available coal and natural gas reserves and overall tarsands contribution to temperature increase is modest.

If the entire Alberta oil-sand resource (that is, oil-in-place) were to be used, the associated carbon dioxide emissions would induce a global mean temperature change of roughly 0.36 °C (0.24–0.50 °C)  However, considering only the economically viable reserve of 170 billion barrels reduces this potential for warming by about tenfold (to 0.02–0.05 °C), and if only the reserve currently under active development were combusted, the warming would be almost undetectable at our significance level.

The Canadian media has chosen to play up just the fact that on a global scale, the project will result in a small increase in global temperature, so the oilsands are okay to exploit.

Climate expert says coal not oilsands real threat – CBC

Other articles pretty much say the same thing,  Prof. Weaver’s quoted comments don’t help either:

“The conventional and unconventional oil is not the problem with global warming,”  “The problem is coal and unconventional natural gas.” “One might argue that the best strategy one might take is to use our oil reserves wisely, but at the same time use them in a way that weans us of our dependence on coal and natural gas”

Weaver’s comments to the media posit this as an either-or, coal and natural gas = bad, oil = okay. Knowing him to be a very intelligent person, I suspect this is some selective quoting. Also, oil is primarily used to fuel transportation, coal and natural gas are used for electricity generation, so I am curious as to what Prof. Weaver is suggesting here as far as using oil reserves to wean us off coal use? Would the plan be to use all the money that we get from exploiting the tarsands to develop an electricity infrastructure that puts efficiency, reduced electricity use, 100% renewables first? I wish! I don’t see that happening. Alberta is currently powered mostly by coal, and if the Federal government is serious in its stated goal to phase new coal out (which is fantastic), then Alberta would switch to natural gas to fuel its tarsands exploitation, and that would not be okay either! Also, these infrastructures are all linked. A lot of BC’s natural gas and proposed big damaging dams like Site C are designed to fuel the tarsands. A province and by extension, country that makes most of its money by taking the resources it was provided for free, and selling them at great profit is not likely to want to transition away from that.

It was interesting that a few weeks back, Mark Jaccard, yet another prominent BC climate scientist (we are blessed) looked at the same issue and came to the following conclusion.

Canadian tarsands must contract as part of a global effort to prevent a 4 degree increase in temperatures and catastrophic climate change.

Vancouver Sun – January 26, 2012

So, is this Jaccard vs. Weaver?

Not really.

Is the Swart and Weaver message that simple? Are they actually saying that it is okay to exploit away because it makes no difference?

The media should start by reading the byline:

The claimed economic benefits of exploiting the vast Alberta oil-sand deposits need to be weighed against the need to limit global warming caused by carbon dioxide emissions.

That’s how the paper starts. It then calculates global warming potentials based on reserves, current production, total “in place” (present, but not always exploitable) and shows that coal and natural gas are by far the greatest potential contributors. This is of course simply because we have much greater reserves of coal and natural gas, so their global warming potential is going to be huge. The paper makes no mention of rate of use, or whether it is humanly possible to use all that coal and natural gas, and what kind of population growth, and per-capita consumption that would entail.

Here’s a very important calculation from the paper that will be lost in the details. To limit temperature rise to 2 °C or less, the allowed, cumulative per person future carbon consumption is 85 tons of carbon. The per-capita carbon potential of the tarsands alone to US and Canada is 65 tons of carbon. So, by itself, the proven reserves (10% of what’s there) of the tarsands can eat up 75% of our allowed carbon budget, not so small, is it.

Here’s what Swart and Weaver have to say about trajectory:

The eventual construction of the Keystone XL pipeline would signify a North American commitment to using the Alberta oilsand reserve, which carries with it a corresponding carbon footprint

Here’s the last paragraph from the paper, another big trajectory argument.

If North American and international policymakers wish to limit global warming to less than 2 °C they will clearly need to put in place measures that ensure a rapid transition of global energy systems to non-greenhouse-gas-emitting sources, while avoiding commitments to new infrastructure supporting dependence on fossil fuels

Absolutely, 100% agreed, but this is not what the media message is at all, interesting.

So Swart and Weaver point out that we need to avoid commitments to new infrastructure promoting fossil fuel dependence, and that building projects like Keystone XL and the Northern Gateway signal a serious commitment to using the entire tarsands. The message in the paper is much more nuanced, and more measured than what’s in the media, not surprising.

I have long since come to the conclusion that this is not about counting of individual carbon atoms and their non-measurable global warming contributions, of course any single project will not tip us over one way or the other. It is about trajectory. To use two smoking analogies, the argument against smoking is not that the next cigarette will kill you, it is that smoking will kill many people in a population over a lifetime. More aptly in this case, the argument is that  Grand River Enterprises, a small Canadian cigarette concern, doesn’t contribute as much to smoking deaths as does Imperial Tobacco, so it is somehow different and okay.

Every major fossil fuel commitment we make is a commitment we do not make to reducing consumption, or increasing renewable use. Every foreign policy/domestic policy decision we take to keep our dollar high to get maximum revenue from the tarsands to shareholders (not the population) is a commitment to not building renewable infrastructure, or spending money on energy efficiency. So, trajectories count, and that is the underlying message from Swart and Weaver.

To finish it off, here’s the PhD Comics Science News Cycle, which is very apropos.

PS: Is Weaver and the Tarsands a good band name?


Joe Romm of climate progress responds to the paper here, thanks @softgrasswalker

And from comments, looks like Prof Weaver was on the CBC this morning, reprising his usual climate hawk self, will listen when they put the audio up.

Here’s Prof. Weaver in the Huffington Post commenting on the study. More about this when I don’t have work to do.


Swart, Neil C., and Andrew J. Weaver. “The Alberta oil sands and climate.” Nature Clim. Change advance online publication (February 19, 2012). http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1421.

Numbers, policy and advocacy

I got into a twitter discussion with Andrew Leach, who writes thoughtfully about energy policy and economics at his blog and occasionally for the globe and mail. The topic of discussion was a number put up by Bill McKibben of 350.org stating the following:

By some calculations, the tar sands contain the equivalent of about 200 parts per million CO2

Now this was a throwaway line in an article warning us that the Obama administration was not doing anything to stop runaway carbon emissions from coal and petroleum. But Prof. Leach made the point that this was a bit dishonest because at the current (and future) rate of oil extraction, it would take over 1500 years, and was  ridiculous. But let’s look at the calculation itself. 200 ppm seems like an outrageously large number. After all, the current concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is 393 ppm. Is Bill McKibben actually saying that the taroilsands (I can’t pick on tar vs. oil, and I will campaign for taroil) can contribute half of what’s currently in the atmosphere? That can’t possibly be true. I mean, it is a huge project and all, but still, only 6.5% of Canada’s emissions in 2009.

But, if you follow the mathematics:

  1. 1.75 trillion barrels of bitumen in place , as opposed to the 10% of that deemed recoverable in 2006 assuming 2006 prices and current technology.
  2. One Barrel is approximately 0.5-0.7 metric tons CO2 if you take into account both the production and the combustion. Note that there is a lot of uncertainty in this estimate because most of the data come from the Canadian and Albertan governments, and from the producers themselves, very interested parties. Let’s use the 0.7 for an upper end.
  3. 2.13 GT Carbon emitted adds 1 ppm of CO2 to the atmosphere.

This gets us to approximately about 160 ppm. Note that the 0.7 MT of CO2 uses a number for land use that takes into account the current devastation of the boreal forest and peat bog. If all the oil needs to get out of the taroil sands, the land use number would explode and likely account for the remaining 40 ppm. Anyway, a rough calculation puts the 200 ppm number in context.

But it is an unrealistic number, because taroilsands extraction is very energy and water intensive, time consuming, and promises to remain that way. Barring some magic technology that makes cheap energy possible, in which case, we’d just use that and avoid all the mess, we won’t ever get to that number.

To summarize, 200 ppm is a reasonably accurate mathematical calculation that is wildly out of context. Sounds familiar?

The larger point is that advocates of all stripes, politicians, lobbyists, chambers of commerce, industry interest groups, corporations, and organizations pushing against them use numbers to make things sound scary and big. People who rail against government spending routinely talk about Canada’s deficit being in the billions of dollars, but when we look at it as a deficit/GDP ratio, the numbers are under control, and there’s no need to panic. In advocacy, it’s great to find a number that makes a fantastic point, somehow to bring a message home. I am sure you remember this one in the wake of the BP oil mega spill. Businesses do this all the time as well, with much greater success. I’m sure you’ve heard this trope about small businesses being the engine of job creation based on just the gross number of jobs they create. Yes, but they’re also the engine of job destruction because they go under a lot, but we don’t see that often.

As someone who has all their training as a scientist, and who does not like numeric misleading, being an activist/advocate is tricky. You work with people who are (rightly in many instances) trying to fight bad policy, and bad outcomes. The taroilsands are terrible, especially given that we’re cooking the planet and we’re deliberately spending billions of dollars investing in them. Regardless of whether they’re going to be responsible for 20 ppm, or 200 ppm, the trajectory of investing in an especially inefficient fossil fuel extraction when we should be phasing out all fossil fuel use is the big egregious wrong here. You are also trying to influence a public that finds it very hard to put numbers in context. No one will ever see a billion dollars, there’s no perceived difference between a million barrels and a trillion barrels, it’s all big numbers! So, the temptation is to use big numbers to scare people. I can understand how that happens, but I can’t bring myself to necessarily be okay with it. I will tolerate it, I guess, because the corporations, governments who produce the raw data underlying these numbers know what they mean, but distort them continuously to serve their agenda, and the media, some of whom are number literate abet this misleading. So some push back is necessary, but I will roll my eyes when it happens.